Talk in yesterday's post of the shameful intersection of disability and laughter brought to mind one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I recount the incident as I'm still not entirely sure what exactly happened and it may be that writing it down will prove cathartic.
A group of us were staying in a B&B on the Spey in Scotland for a long weekend. It was a beautiful place and we spent every day out and about, fishing, pony-trekking, walking. We even managed a bit of skiing, bouncing along the top of some sleet-brushed heather. The B&B offered dinner and as we were in the middle of nowhere we ate there each night. The food was great.
One evening we sat down to dinner at the large dining table. There was, I think, just enough room for two other smaller tables, one in the window alcove at the front of the room and another butting up to the side wall nearest the door. We came down in dribs and drabs having taken it in turns to use the two baths that were ours.
Joining us on the table near the wall were a couple in early old age, friendly and thoroughly nice. We introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries and experiences. They were pretty fit it seemed, out walking all day, despite her having a severe hunchback - she was bent over nearly double. It was great that they didn't seem to let this stop them enjoying an active life.
Anyway, we left them to their meal. We were now just waiting for one of our party, R. He entered the room, stooped over, his hand on the small of his back and a grimace on his face. He was a chronic sufferer from a bad back so it was no surprise that the day's activities had wrought some damage.
He saw we'd noticed his discomfort and smiled bravely. "The bells, the bells!" he cried as he came over to us. "Quasimodo - I can barely stand up straight! Quasimodo! Quasimodo!" As he walked, he exaggerated his stoop.
I looked around the table. I saw on everyone else's face the look of horror I must have been wearing on mine. We looked at him, silently pleading him not to mention Quasimodo again or make any references to "the bells". Then for some reason one of us - I won't ascribe blame as it's not fair - stifled a crazy giggle. It was an involuntary reaction to the combination of embarrassment, panic and shock we were experiencing. One by one we fell under the influence of this malign hilarity until the whole table was quaking with the grunts and shakes of a sick, stifled laughter.
R looked at us with incredulity - he knew nothing of the brave hunchbacked woman and her admirable husband. "What's up he asked? What's the matter? All I say is something about feeling like Quasimodo and you all crack up! What's so funny?"
Could this get any worse? How could we make it stop? There was nothing to be done: we were caught in our paroxysms like flies in honey, thrashing uselessly.
Eventually one of us managed to inhale enough air to mouth that R should sit down - we'd tell him later what was up. We chomped joylessly through the dinner, hardly talking. We could barely meet each other's eyes we were so ashamed.
Seeking to make amends, to at least show friendship from there on in, I asked whether the couple would like join us for a game of scrabble afterwards (there was a cosy sitting room with board games next door). Thankfully, the husband said he would; his wife said she was feeling very tired and would go up to bed.
They would certainly have heard everything R had said as well as our humourless sniggers. But they gave no indication of taking umbrage. The husband remained perfectly pleasant throughout the rest of the evening. Perhaps, incredibly, he had understood?
It's an incident I'll never forget and which still fills me with shame and, even now, a degree of disbelief. It's difficult to credit: we knew in every fibre that it was wrong, it wasn't even fun at the time - it was excruciating - but nevertheless it happened. Disability and laughter.